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The Hardline Forces Shaping the Conservative Leadership Contest

Sam Bright and Max Colbert explore the individuals and organisations that are propelling the Conservative Party’s lurch to the right

Conservative MP Steve Baker. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy

The Hardline ForcesShaping the Conservative Leadership Contest

Byline Times and The Citizens explore the individuals and organisations that are propelling the Conservative Party’s lurch to the right

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On 11 July, climate-sceptic Conservative MP Steve Baker hosted a relaunch event for the Thatcherite-era campaigning group, Conservative Way Forward (CWF), attended by Conservative leadership hopefuls Suella Braverman and Nadhim Zahawi.

CWF is an entity originally launched in 1991 to “defend and build upon the achievements of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, and to adapt the principles of her era in government to modern concerns and challenges”. 

According to the organisation’s LinkedIn profile, former Prime Minister David Cameron described it as “the largest and most effective pressure group in the Conservative Party today”. The group claims to have, since 1997, supported every successful leadership candidate, including Boris Johnson.

The campaign video used to relaunch CWF perpetuates the claim that it is an eclectic mix of Conservative members from different wings of the party. But, in reality, the reemergence of CWF as a force in Conservative politics represents a worrying yet-further rightwards shift in the politics of the party – confirmed by the influence of other opaque Thatcherite groups.

Baker, who has shared papers denying the climate crisis and is a trustee at the UK’s “principal climate science denial campaign group”, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, has himself stated that his ultimate objective for CWF is to “redefine the territory on which the Conservative Party operates” – cementing the ultra-libertarian wing as the new “centre ground” of the party.

Braverman, and individuals coalescing around the CWF, strongly reflect the shift in the party towards low corporate tax, net-zero-scepticism and culture war conflicts, encouraged by big money broadcasters – mirroring the tone of Republican politics in the United States.

Baker himself has come out fiercely in support of Braverman’s campaign, stating that she has his “complete and unequivocal loyalty”, recently becoming her campaign manager. Baker had briefly toyed with the idea of running for the leadership himself.

Braverman and Zahawi were the only candidates to publicly back a ‘Charter for Tax Cuts’ promoted by CWF, written by ‘independent economist’ Julian Jessop. While now self-employed, Jessop was, until December 2018, the chief economist at opaquely-funded Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a libertarian think tank that is widely reported to have received money from the fossil fuel industry and climate science deniers

The CWF pamphlet calls for expansive tax cuts, reductions in fuel VAT, and the suspension of green levies on energy bills designed to fund renewables. The CWF, as extensively reported by DeSmog, also has deep links to climate-scepticism.

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Neil Record, chair of the GWPF (and the IEA), donated £5,000 to Steve Baker in February for a ‘media and strategic campaign consultant’. Ed Barker, who sits on the board of directors of CWF, worked with him closely during the pandemic, helping to coordinate a nexus of lockdown-sceptic groups.

GWPF’s honorary president is Lord Nigel Lawson, who has defended fossil fuel extraction and described global warming as “not a problem”.

GWPF and its campaigning arm, Net Zero Watch, have been found to have accepted donations from those linked to the fossil fuel industry, while falsely blaming the cost of living crisis on net-zero policies. Climate policy researchers have branded claims made by the group as “misinformation and propaganda”.

GWPF says that it seeks to challenge the “costs and implications” of measures to tackle climate change and claims that it wants to see “policies that enhance human wellbeing and protect the environment”.

It should also be noted that environmental issues remain a top-three issue among the British public, according to recent polling. In fact, the pro-climate Conservative Environment Network counts 123 MPs and 15 Tory peers among its ranks. Once again, it becomes difficult to square this with the CWF’s claims of uniting Conservative members behind a mainstream agenda.

However, there are fears among green Tories that the next party leader, in the wake of the Johnson administration’s sudden implosion, could ditch its climate policies to appease the likes of Baker and CWF.

CWF favourite Braverman has openly committed to scrapping the Government’s net-zero plans, stating that: “In order to deal with the energy crisis we need to suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050. If we keep it up, especially before businesses and families can adjust, our economy will end up with net zero growth”.

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Braverman has also taken a hardline stance on culture war issues – quoted earlier this month as saying that “we need to get rid of all this woke rubbish and get back to a country where describing a man and a woman in terms of biology does not mean that you’re going to lose your job”.

She recently faced backlash from school leaders after claiming that schools should have no obligation to accommodate pupils who want to change gender, or address them by their preferred pronouns.

Caroline Derbyshire, executive head at Saffron Waldon county high school disputed Braverman’s outburst as “an attempt to whip up an anti-woke culture war, and in schools we are not really interested in this kind of silliness. Young people have been through enough”.

Polling shows that only 2% of Britons think the trans debate is an important issue facing the country, despite the focus devoted to the subject during the Conservative leadership election.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the CWF launch event was not only attended by climate-sceptics, Brexiters, and libertarians of all stripes, but also by various media figures connected with fringe, anti-‘woke’ Conservative groups.

Kane Blackwell, a GB News producer and a Conservative campaigner said that he was “pleased to be a part” of the movement. Also present at the launch was Guido Fawkes reporter Christian Calgie, Conservative MP for Bishop Aukland Dehenna Davison, right-wing political strategist Peter Barnes, and YouTuber Mahyar Tousi.

As Byline Times have previously reported, senior CWF figure Paul Simon Osborn is a Conservative councillor involved in several key pro-Trump lobby groups, one of which was funded by big Republican donor Rebekah Mercer. Neither CWF nor Osborn responded to Byline Times’ previous questions about this matter.

Other supporters of Baker’s pressure group include former Brexit negotiator and belated lockdown-sceptic David Frost, and Conservative peer Helena Morrissey, who previously claimed that COVID reporting was being exaggerated because people were not “dropping dead in the street”.

CWF’s claim of being an inclusive organisation is questionable, given Baker’s choice of preferred candidate. Its campaign video, at one point, features a pride flag waving proudly, overlaid with the word “freedom”. However, a close look at Braverman’s voting record shows that she has voted not to permit same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland, while she has advocated withdrawing the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights.

With Braverman likely to be knocked out of the contest in the coming days, it will be interesting to see if her agenda will be adopted by the other frontrunners, and if the influence of CWF will continue to drive the party inexorably rightwards, towards Thatcherite, anti-net-zero dogma.


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The Backroom Operatives

CWF aside, Politico yesterday released a list of some of the individuals advising the Conservative leadership contenders, though neglected to unpick their CVs in any great detail.

With further research, it’s apparent that the contest is being shaped by individuals associated with the more radical wing of conservative politics.

Confirming previous reporting by Byline Times, Liz Truss has continued her close relationship with the current and former members of the ‘Tufton Street network’ of opaque libertarian think-tanks. According to Politico, her leadership advisors include Ruth Porter, the former communications director at the IEA, and Sophie Jarvis, former head of government affairs at the Adam Smith Institute (ASI).

Truss is reportedly also being informally advised by Mark Littlewood, the director general of the IEA – whom Truss previously appointed to one of her department’s advisory boards – Matthew Lesh, who’s head of public policy at the IEA and a fellow of the ASI, alongside another off-book Truss advisor, Michael Turner.

Neither the IEA nor the ASI declare their funding sources, the latter claiming that its “funding comes from private individuals who believe in liberty and want to see a freer world”. Both of these organisations advocate for the radical lowering of taxes and the extension of private influence into the public realm.

Team Truss also features Hugh Bennett, a former reporter at the alt-right political blog Guido Fawkes, Lucy Harris, a former Member of European Parliament for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and Jason Stein, who advised Jeremy Hunt’s Conservative leadership bid in 2019.

Liz TrussThe Tufton Street Candidate

Sam Bright unravels the ties between Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss and Westminster’s network of opaque libertarian think tanks

The tentacles of zealous right-wing think tanks also extend into the campaigns of other candidates. Politico reports that the political director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA), James Roberts, is helping to canvas support for Kemi Badenoch, while Alex Morton, head of policy at the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), is overseeing the campaign’s policy work. Roberts is also a graduate of the political strategy firm Crosby Textor, run by right-wing Australian elections guru Lynton Crosby.

Nadhim Zahawi’s bid, meanwhile, which supported huge cuts to the civil service, was advised by two long-standing Crosby Textor operatives, Mark Fullbrook and Matt Jackson.

Aside from helping a number of political candidates with hard-right beliefs in recent years, it has been claimed that Crosby Textor ran Facebook pages that “sidestepped Facebook’s rules on transparent political campaigning” on behalf of clients including major polluters, the Saudi Arabian Government, anti-cycling groups and various foreign political campaigns. All parties have previously pointed out that they operated entirely within the law.

Neither the TPA nor the CPS are transparent about their funding, and both are ideological in their support of small-state, low-tax economics, leveraging significant influence over Conservative politics. The CPS board includes the chairman of the Conservative Party, Ben Elliot, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee Sir Graham Brady, alongside several other parliamentarians, the editor of The Spectator magazine, and one of the Conservative Party’s largest donors, Lord Anthony Bamford.

Suella Braverman’s director of communications is David Scullion, an online editor of monthly conservative publication The Critic, and previously BrexitCentral. The Critic is underwritten by multimillionaire Brexit donor and fossil fuel investor Jeremy Hoksing, who also backs the anti-net-zero, socially reactionary parties Reclaim and Reform UK, fronted by Laurence Fox and Richard Tice respectively. 

Perhaps somewhat awkwardly, Penny Mordaunt is being advised by Laura Round, who served as a press officer for the Remain campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign (Mordaunt supported Leave).

And although Tom Tugendhat is pitching himself as a relatively ‘moderate’ candidate, his communications effort is being assisted by Liam Deacon, the former head of press at the Brexit Party and a former reporter for the alt-right platform Breitbart, formerly run by Donald Trump’s campaign manager and strategy director Steve Bannon. More recently, Deacon was a GB News producer. The Tugendhat campaign did not respond to our request for comment.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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